Sound checks echoed from a distant main stage while Daniel Martinez whirled and danced at dusty makeshift festival grounds just after sunset in Rachel, the Nevada town closest to the once-secret Area 51 military base.
Martinez’s muse was the thumping beat from a satellite set-up pumping a techno tune into the chilly desert night Thursday.
Warm beneath a wolf “spirit hood” and matching faux fur jacket, the 31-year-old Pokemon collectible cards dealer said people, not the military base, drew him drive more than six hours from Pomona, California, alone.
“Here’s a big open space for people to be,” he said. “One person starts something and it infects everybody with positivity. Anything can happen if you give people a place to be.”
Minutes later, the music group Wily Savage started, and campers began migrating toward main stage light near the Little A’Le’Inn.
The music kicked off weekend events — inspired by an internet hoax to “see them aliens” — that Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee said had drawn perhaps 1,500 people to two tiny desert towns.
Lee said late Thursday that more than 150 people also made the rugged trip on washboard dirt roads to get within selfie distance of two gates to the Area 51 U.S. Air Force installation that has long fueled speculation about government studies of space aliens and UFOs.
The Air Force has issued stern warnings for people not to try to enter the Nevada Test and Training Range, where Area 51 is located.
Lee said no arrests were made.
“It’s public land,” the sheriff said. “They’re allowed to go to the gate, as long as they don’t cross the boundary.”
Authorities reported no serious incidents related to festivals scheduled until Sunday in Rachel and Hiko, the two towns closest to Area 51. They’re about a 45-minute drive apart on a state road dubbed the Extraterrestrial Highway, and a two-hour drive from Las Vegas.
Earlier, as Wily Savage band members helped erect the wooden frame for a stage shade in Rachel, guitarist Alon Burton said he saw a chance to perform for people who, like Martinez, were looking for a scene in which to be seen.
“It started as a joke, but it’s not a joke for us,” he said. “We know people will come out. We just don’t know how many.”
Michael Ian Borer, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, sociologist who researches pop culture and paranormal activity, called the festivities sparked by the internet joke “a perfect blend of interest in aliens and the supernatural, government conspiracies, and the desire to know what we don’t know.”
The result, Borer said, was “hope and fear” for events that include the “Area 51 Basecamp” featuring music, speakers and movies in Hiko, and festivals in Rachel and Las Vegas competing for the name “Alienstock.”
“People desire to be part of something, to be ahead of the curve,” Borer said. “Area 51 is a place where normal, ordinary citizens can’t go. When you tell people they can’t do something, they just want to do it more.”
Eric Holt, the Lincoln County emergency manager overseeing preparations, said he believed authorities could handle 30,000 visitors at the two events in Rachel and Hiko.
Still, neighbors braced for trouble after millions of people responded to the “Storm Area 51” Facebook post weeks ago.
“Those that know what to expect camping in the desert are going to have a good time,” said Joerg Arnu, a Rachel resident who can see the festival grounds from his home.
Those who show up in shorts and flip-flops will find no protection against “critters, snakes and scorpions.”
“It will get cold at night. They’re not going to find what they’re looking for, and they are going to get angry,” Arnu said.
Some cellphones didn’t work Thursday in Rachel, and officials expect what service there was to eventually be overwhelmed.
The Federal Aviation Administration closed nearby airspace, although Air Force jets could be heard in the sun-drenched skies, along with an occasional sonic boom.
George Harris, owner of the Alien Research Center souvenir store in Hiko, said Friday and Saturday’s “Area 51 Basecamp” will focus on music, movies and talks about extraterrestrial lore.
Electronic dance music DJ and recording artist Paul Oakenfold is Friday’s headliner in Hiko.
The event also promises food trucks and vendors, trash and electric service, and a robust security and medical staff.
Harris said he was prepared for as many as 15,000 people and expected they would appreciate taking selfies with a replica of the Area 51 back gate without having to travel several miles to the real thing.
Sharon Wehrly, sheriff in adjacent Nye County, home to a conspicuously green establishment called the Area 51 Alien Center, said messages discouraging Earthlings from trying to find extraterrestrials in Amargosa Valley appeared to work.
She reported no arrests or incidents Thursday.
Her deputies last week arrested two Dutch tourists attracted by “Storm Area 51.” The men pleaded guilty to trespassing at a secure U.S. site nowhere near Area 51 and were sentenced to three days in jail after promising to pay nearly $2,300 each in fines.